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The Most Important Wine Number

By Stephen Eliot

It has been said by many that vintage has become largely irrelevant when discussing fine wines; that due to both viticultural and vinicultural mastery, the days of wholesale vintage disaster are behind us, and that good wines and bad will be found from every harvest. There is, I think, a good deal of truth in these notions, yet I would not be too quick to dismiss the worth of knowing the year of a bottle’s birth.

A vintage date is, at least to some extent, a general statement of the odds of success for an unknowing consumer, and it can be a useful predictor of style as much as quality. But, it is only one of many pieces of information that can provide meaningful gleanings as to what lies within the bottle and should not be taken in and of itself as some absolute guarantor of a wine’s success or failure. And, it takes some knowledge to be useful. Still, it is the first and most important number for a bottle of wine.

I have always disliked vintage charts that do no more than ascribe a static rating or score to a harvest year. They are overly simplisitic, and, even if offered by their creators with considerable caveats as being no more than very general assessments, they offer little insight as to character and style. It is those that come with annotation, not simply numbers or “grades”, that are instructive, and, when authored by experienced professionals with access to and knowledge of a great number of wines, they are handy tools in understanding what a wine might have to say.

California, of course, has always presented its own set of problems when looking for easy vintage information owing to the simple fact that our vineyards are so varied in locale and varietal composition as to defy any pat answers as to what a given vintage might really mean. What is a good year for Pinot Noir in one district may be difficult for Cabernet Sauvignon in another. We need to talk in far more specific terms if a vintage date is to be useful.

In the end, a vintage date is but one piece of the puzzle, one clue of many that when collectively fit into place provides a clear picture of what a given wine is about, and it is not to be ignored as being irrelevant just because it is not absolute. And, while, I am inclined to agree with the idea that blanket vintage disaster seems to be rare these days, Mother Nature is fickle, and, in an era of global warming and surprising turns in the weather, I can only cautiously hope that the really bad years are a thing of the past. But, until they are, I will continue to study wines vintage by vintage because that date, that number is a really big clue.


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